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Meat, milk, eggs can make a big difference in the first 1,000 days of life in low-income countries—New report

Cover of a new report, The influence of livestock-derived foods on nutrition during the first 1,000 days of life, by Delia Grace, Paula Dominguez-Salas, Silvia Alonso, Mats Lannerstad, Emmanuel Muunda and Nicholas Ngwili, all of ILRI, and Abbas Omar, Mishal Khan and Eloghene Otobo of Chatham House, 2018, ILRI Research Report 44. Nairobi, Kenya: ILRI.

There is great potential for

food produced from livestock

to contribute to better health

in low-income populations.

—Review by the International Livestock Research Institute
and the Chatham House Centre on Global Health Security

Global efforts to limit or reduce

the consumption of meat, milk and eggs

over environmental concerns

should exclude pregnant and breastfeeding women

and babies under the age of two,

especially in low-income settings

where other sources of protein and micronutrients

are not available or not customarily used.

An extensive review of research found demonstrable nutritional benefits of providing children, particularly in countries in Africa and South Asia where undernutrition is highest, with livestock-derived foods such as meat, milk and eggs. Consumption of livestock-derived foods was typically found to be very low among poor families in those countries.

The influence of livestock-derived foods on nutrition during the first 1,000 days of life, published by the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and Chatham House, also concluded that it was possible to meet the nutritional needs of the most vulnerable through livestock-derived produce even if total global livestock production slowed down.

‘Intensification of livestock production should follow the principles of sustainability: economic, environmental, health and social. But it is also important to keep in mind the multiple economic and social contributions that livestock rearing gives many millions of smallholder farmers in poor countries’, said Osman Dar, director of the One Planet-One Health Project at the Chatham House Centre on Global Health Security. ‘To this end, it would be irresponsible to fail to exploit the livestock resources in those countries for the benefit of improving diets of undernourished children and vulnerable mothers.’

‘The many health and environmental concerns around livestock-derived food production and consumption in high-income countries are of legitimate concern, but these should not be a reason to limit nutritional choices for the undernourished in poorer countries.’

Considering that global nutrient requirements in the first 1,000 days of life are a small proportion of total food production, the production of meat, milk and eggs for young children and new mothers could be prioritized even in the face of overall reductions in supply to reduce the global environmental pressure from livestock production.

The report makes four key recommendations:

  • Increase the availability and affordability of safe livestock-derived foods in low- and middle-income countries with low levels of intake of these foods where economically feasible and culturally acceptable
  • Base global livestock-derived food strategies on full sustainability assessments and recognize the particular needs at critical points in the human life-cycle (first 1,000 days)
  • Better align nutrition, health, livestock and sustainability policies at national level in low- and middle-income countries
  • Expand the evidence base through high-quality action research

Despite progress to tackle poor nutrition in children’s early years, undernutrition remains high, with one in four children under five in the world reported to be stunted in 2014, according to UNICEF.

Deficiencies in key micronutrients, such as iron, vitamin A, iodine and zinc, are also common among children and pregnant women in low- and middle-income countries.

But consuming livestock-derived products such as meat, milk and eggs in the first 1,000 days of life are a viable option to improve a child’s prospects of growth, cognition and development, the report said.

Livestock-derived foods are among the richest and most efficient sources of necessary micronutrients, macronutrients and fatty acids. For example, a woman would have to eat eight times more spinach than cow’s liver to get the same levels of iron.

Yet livestock-derived food represented just 20 per cent of the total protein supply across Asia and sub-Saharan Africa in 2013. In North America and Europe, as much as 60 per cent of the protein supply came from meat, milk and eggs.

The report highlighted a research gap with only two studies on breastfeeding women, in Sri Lanka and Burma. Both studies indicated supplementing new mothers’ diets with milk or other animal protein might have a positive effect on breast milk.

Meanwhile, a trial in Ecuador found that simply adding an egg a day to the diets of six- to nine-month-old babies improved their growth and the levels of an essential nutrient called choline, which is associated with cognitive development.

‘The role of meat, milk and eggs is complex and markedly different between high and low-income countries and populations. Whereas animal protein is severely lacking for poor people, it can be over-consumed by the affluent’, said Delia Grace, Animal and Human Health Program Leader at ILRI.

‘Our extensive review suggests that livestock-derived foods have unmet potential to contribute to better health and nutrition wherever current intake is low, malnutrition is high, and social and cultural norms permit their intake. This is especially important for new and expecting mothers and their babies. But this potential will be fully realized only if environmental and health concerns are well managed.’

The report called for more high-quality research into both the role of nutrition in the first 1,000 days of life as well as improving food safety, given the associations between livestock and food-borne disease.

‘Considering that meat, milk and eggs are an excellent source of high-quality protein and micronutrients, measures to improve the availability and accessibility of livestock-derived foods should be promoted among populations with very low intakes and where social and cultural norms permit’, said Paula Dominguez-Salas, nutrition scientist at ILRI.

‘This is particularly relevant for pregnant and lactating women and young children, whose high nutrient requirements and limited intake demand nutrient-dense foods. However, strategies to increase the availability of livestock-derived food should be coupled with interventions to promote good and healthy diets and monitor consumption levels in different segments of society.’

The report is available online.

The International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) works to improve food security, to reduce poverty and to protect the environment in developing countries through research on better and more sustainable uses of livestock by the poor. ILRI is a member of CGIAR—a global research partnership for a food-secure future. ILRI advocates science- and evidence-based approaches to meeting the Sustainable Development Goals.

Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs, is an independent policy institute based in London that engages governments, the private sector, civil society and members in open debates and private discussions about the most significant developments in international affairs. Each year, the institute runs more than 300 private and public events in London and internationally with partners.

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